- British Military Spectacle: From the Napoleonic Wars through the Crimea by Scott Hughes Myerly
Harvard, 336 pp, £23.50, December 1996, ISBN 0 674 08249 4
To be shot from one’s horse in battle was something of an honour, but to be blown from the saddle in a gust of wind at a review was not. This misfortune befell the Duke of Wellington in Hyde Park on a May day in 1829. Much of the blame lay with his Guards bearskin cap, nearly two feet high, which he was wearing instead of his usual cocked hat. ‘Oh, what a falling off was there!’ exclaimed the caricaturist Paul Pry, showing the Duke in his white trousers alighting on horse dung. But the diarist Creevey says the top-heavy hero was ‘immensely cheered’ by thousands. After all, lusty young troopers were sometimes unhorsed in this fashion.
It was an age of military dandyism like no other. Was there, then, a case for cracking down on the monstrous millinery of war? Was towering headgear really necessary to overawe the enemy? How many British casualties on campaign were caused by the fopperies of uniform? Why were monarchs, and colonels of regiments, so insistent on a tight fit when, in an emergency, an officer could hardly pull on his rain-shrunk trousers or wield his sword in a rain-shrunk jacket? Or was there more to the curve of a plume and the traditional spacing of buttons than a layman could ever know, a symbolism and a mystique that built and sustained esprit de corps, an imagery that imbued not only the wearer but the beholder with pride and patriotism? Questions like these sprout from Scott Hughes Myerly’s earnest foray into military aesthetics. There have been innumerable books about army uniforms and traditions, but Myerly, an American cultural and military historian, is concerned also with the impact on society of military spectacle and of those martial virtues and excellences which he describes, not once but many times, as the military paradigm.
The author calls Byron in aid. ‘What makes a regiment of soldiers a more noble object of view than the same mass of mob? Their arms, their dress, their banners and their art and artificial symmetry of their position and movements.’ It hardly needed Byron to tell us that. ‘Terrible as an army with banners,’ runs the biblical phrase, but nothing is more terrible, in the looser sense of the word, than an unchoreographed army of dissenters with banners all awry, spitting stale mantras as they go. ‘Cadenced marching’ does much to dignify even the dingiest cause (this book is commended on the jacket by the author of a book called Keeping Time in History). Myerly fails to mention the goose-step, which in Hanoverian times reached British parade-grounds as the ‘balance step’ and was much execrated by those required to perform it. In spite of its latter-day associations, the sight of hundreds of beefy automatons, identical in aspect, advancing through a conquered capital in this bizarre masochistic mode exacts a reluctant admiration, inspired simply by that clockwork perfection, that artificial symmetry. The message for the spectator has been summarised as: ‘If we can do this we can march through a brick wall.’ Our own grand military spectacles, in the years covered here, succeeded in blending might, precision and elegance with a dash of entertainment and the necessary touch of ‘Don’t mess with us.’ Its rich pageantry was well calculated to draw susceptible youth to the Colours, along with those with ‘too much wife’ and too much form. For the enemy it was surely a privilege to be spitted by such fine-plumed lancers, or to be deprived of a limb or two by such exquisitely frogged hussars.
In the martial spectacle, every item of dress, every accoutrement, had its own peculiar peril for the wearer. Even in our own times, Queen’s Regulations forbade the wearing of spurs in powder magazines, inviting speculation as to how many forts went sky-high before that prudent rule was drafted. Myerly, who has read widely and profitably in soldiers’ stories, is assiduous in listing the hazards in the panoply of war. Those top-heavy bearskins not only tempted the wind, they absorbed a great weight of water. Metal shakos, already ‘a sickening weight’, assisted the rain to cascade into the wearer’s clothing. Thick chest padding, to give that pouter pigeon effect, weighed on the martial breast like a hot or cold poultice, depending on the weather. The pipeclay in which clothing and equipment were coated blew up in clouds on the march, not least under an Indian sun. A general described it as ‘white dirt ... more injurious to the sight and health of the men than anything that can be conceived’. At besieged Kabul in 1841 ‘severe shortages and the prohibitively high cost of pipeclay led three soldiers to dig deposits of the stuff (probably chalk) in the nearby, enemy-occupied hills, where they were killed’. Was there ever a sorrier tale of valour? (In the Second World War a cartoon showed two ragged soldiers, on their knees in a wilderness, gasping: ‘Blanco! Blanco!’) As if white dirt did not provide contamination enough, there was the fashion, until 1808, of the hair queue steeped in grease and tallow, then heavily dusted with flour. Designed to keep the hair from obscuring the vision, it was pulled so tight that, as the veteran John Shipp testified, a soldier could scarcely open his eyes. The Tsar’s soldiers had their queues stiffened by iron bars.
But the most hated item of equipment was the neckstock, a kind of heavy leather cravat intended to force the soldier’s head erect and, as a secondary consideration, to blunt a sword stroke. We are told that ‘officers, wishing the men to appear healthy’, caused the stock to be fastened too tightly in order ‘to make an underfed man’s face look ruddy’. The (Grand Old) Duke of York thought that the pressure of stocks on the glands of the neck excited scrofulous swellings in those with a tendency to that disorder. An army doctor believed the stock was bad for the eyesight, from the pressure on the optic nerve, as well as inducing apoplexy – ‘it would be better surely to inflict an ulcer upon the soldier’s neck.’ A sergeant called the stock ‘Calcraft’s cord’, the hangman’s noose. In the Second Sikh War, we read, the colonel of the Thirty-First Foot reprimanded a soldier for removing his stock. A wild light came into the man’s eyes and it looked as if he might shoot his colonel. Instead he laid his head on the muzzle of his gun and blew his brains out. Yet some old sweats grew to love their stock, as prisoners were thought to love their chains, arguing that it helped to shield their necks against the sun. No doubt the sum total of tortures helped to achieve a fine turn-out, with all heads propped high, padded chests out and cheeks inflated (the Times once claimed to have unearthed an old parade-ground order: ‘Puff visage’). The raw recruit might think he had joined a ‘blinkin’ circus’, but with luck he would live to see the elements of that circus as ‘vibrant tokens of martial honour representing sublime values’, if not perhaps in quite those words.
In this age of dandyism the British Army began by disposing of the Emperor of France and ended by humbling the Tsar of Russia. It served in five continents and fought endlessly in the Indian sub-continent; its punitive errands included burning down the White House in Washington and sacking the Chinese Emperor’s summer palace in Peking. But in the aftermath of Waterloo the Army was called on more and more to overawe the people of Britain – and not by military spectacle alone. Its ‘enemies’ were agricultural rioters, Luddites, Reform mobs, Chartists. Along with the yeomanry, regular troops were at the beck of clerical magistrates, eager to read the Riot Act. More and more barracks were run up in trouble areas. For the Army this was all wrong; good soldiers would rather be shooting foreigners than their own kind. Officers of crack regiments disliked postings to the social death of factory towns. Captain George Brummell, learning that his regiment, the Tenth Light Dragoons, was to be sent north, sought permission of his colonel, the Prince of Wales, to resign his commission: ‘Think, your Royal Highness – Manchester!’ To which the Prince replied: ‘Oh, by all means, Brummell – do as you please, do as you please.’ The troops, unable to do as they pleased, were sometimes moved to disaffection. This is where training and tradition counted. Would they still see themselves, in their martial panoply, as the proud servants of monarch and state, and not as the agents of municipal and industrial power? The thin red line held. Ironically, as Myerly points out, the nation which traditionally detested the idea of a standing army was always ready to flock to any parades, reviews, field days or mock battles that were going; only the sourest radicals enjoyed seeing the country’s greatest soldier being blown from his horse. And crowds flocked to Astley’s Amphitheatre, where spirited reconstructions of the battle of Waterloo were perennially staged.
Meanwhile, the leaders of the Industrial Revolution were being driven to despair by the gross irresponsibility of workforces unused to such concepts as hierarchy and subordination, and as ready to burn down a factory as to work in one. It is easy to see how the masters pined for a machine-like army, obedient, punctual, untainted by education, free from seditious rage, long-suffering, self-sacrificing, grateful for the lowest wage. But a factory was not a regiment. Ruskin is quoted as saying it was ‘easy to imagine an enthusiastic affection among soldiers for the colonel, not so easy to imagine an enthusiastic affection for the proprietor of the mill’. Samuel Smiles, of self-help fame, much admired the military virtues: ‘Duty in its purest form is so constraining that one never thinks, in performing it, of one’s self at all ... The truest sense of enjoyment is found in the paths of duty alone.’ Myerly tells us that some employers, impressed by ‘the military paradigm’, viewed themselves as commanders-in-chief. He cites the examples of Joseph Wedgwood and Robert Owen, both faced with reducing half-savage flocks to order, both using the military metaphors beloved by men of peace (not least hymn-writers). Owen, who was criticised for marching his men from job to job in military order and drilling factory children with fife and drum, may well have been inspired by the monitorial schools of Dr Andrew Bell and Joseph Lancaster, experts at producing order from chaos. Many of the examples we are offered here of martial influence on the nation’s way of life seem inadequate and hard-gleaned, like that of the madhouse proprietor who ‘thought his attendants’ sense of duty should be like that of soldiers’. The military spirit certainly seems to have animated those running an industrial school at Feltham, where young delinquents were treated on modern ‘boot camp’ lines; but corrective establishments in the main probably had little to learn from the military. The Salvation Army receives only the briefest mention. Its annals show that ‘General’ William Booth had never wanted his movement to be called an army; it was his son, ‘General’ Bramwell, who insisted on military ranks, the signing of Articles of War and so forth. All of which led to enormous ridicule and even uproar and violence on the streets.
Myerly would have us believe that respect for military values continues to animate society today. It certainly animates those reporters who unfailingly describe every successful armed robbery or kidnapping as having been executed with military precision. Martial values, the author claims, ‘constitute a mechanistic metaphor and a paradigm with an importance that is nothing short of primordial in its impact on the modern world’. In times of crisis, he says, respect for these values can save the status quo for ‘the economic and political élite’, which may or may not be good news for all. Nothing is said about the martial virtues which inspire so many military coups in the world (a Sandhurst training can be quite a help there). Down the generations the greatest indifference to the ‘military paradigm’ has been shown by organised labour, a fact of life on which Myerly is reticent. In both World Wars, no matter how grave the threat to the nation, much of the workforce in Britain persisted in the contentious ways of peace, happy to allow the Army to display its traditional virtues beyond the seas. Wartime employers pined, like their 19th-century predecessors, for a disciplined, military style of labour. The reductio ad absurdum came with the precious Dockers’ Battalion set up in 1915 by Lord Derby in strife-racked Liverpool. Its members were lightly uniformed volunteers who were under military law, taught to form fours in clean boots. For doing an honest day’s work they were paid the docker’s minimum of 35s plus the shilling a day paid to the men in the trenches. The non-commissioned officers were, of course, union officials keen on exacting dues from their members in the ranks. No member of this battalion was ever shot for desertion or mutiny.
Almost one hundred pages of British Military Spectacle are given over to notes. The reader might have been better served if they had been devoted to giving more, and more persuasive, examples of the military influence on society. However, it is always good to see American publishers backing research into facets of British history which our own publishers are eager to neglect. Perhaps Harvard University Press should encourage Myerly, with his close interest in military history and alert eye for oddities, to delve into the secrets of the United States Army, its forms of drill and fortifying customs. He might even examine that West Point tradition which required, and perhaps still requires, the new officer cadet to do everything at right angles, even at meals. As a memorable BBC television programme explained, and illustrated: ‘He impales a piece of meat on his fork, moves it in a straight line away from him, raises it vertically, and then transfers it along a straight line parallel with the table to his mouth.’ There is obviously a character-forming theory behind this. Perhaps it is that since curves are associated with voluptuousness and moral frailty, and what is oblique is not to be trusted, it follows that straight lines and rectangles are synonymous with rectitude and honour. None of the martinets who tried to Prussianise the British Army, not even the preposterous Duke of Kent (Queen Victoria’s father) who instructed the troops at Gibraltar on the appropriate posture to adopt at divine service, tried to regulate the troops’ table manners.